Sacred Games Season 1 Review (No Spoilers): Terrible Subtitles, Good Ideas

As I feared, I ended up doing nothing today and just binging Sacred Games.  Oh well, at least it was a really really good show, so I don’t feel like I completely wasted my day.  And I will try to put up little mini-spoiler reviews over the course of the day tomorrow, so we can discuss without spoiling people who haven’t started/finished yet.

The first most important thing, terrible subtitles!  First they were slightly out of synch, with some lines flashing so fast I couldn’t even read them.  I have seen this before and Netflix usually fixes promptly, so there is hope.  And that they were just bad translations.  Stuff like, changing “Hema Malini” to “movie star”.  I hate that, just tell us what was said!  If it’s a reference we don’t know, we can figure it out.

The other flaw is that the plot is essentially impossible to follow.  But that’s not really a flaw, once you just let go of any attempt to understand it step by step.  The details aren’t the point, it is the broad sweep that matters, the character motivations, the big stakes.  You can let go of the little things like “wait, where did that file come from which lead them to that witness?  Why are they searching this house?” In fact, letting go of those things will make it easier to follow what really matters, you can spend more time looking for the exchange of glances and personal stories instead of worrying about where that particular significant whatever came from and why and how it lead them to the next step in the case.

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Overall, it is a very very good series.  And the thing that I noticed more and more as the episodes rolled past was how important it was that there were two series directors, Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane.  The Netflix series is structured for binge watching.  And the flaw of binge watching is the tendency to get lost, lost in the story and the characters, lost in the episodes as they flow past without a break.  Anurag and Vikramaditya filmed their sections completely separately, and found their own distinctive voice in the materials they were given, and ended up giving us little landmarks in the episodes, helping us to keep track of the movements of the plots.

Anurag works with Nawazuddin, his discovery of years past, and builds a complicated decade spanning story of a crime king.  It’s sprawling and layered with characters who disappear and come back as the years roll past.  It’s also very violent.  And very superficial.  Nawazuddin, our central character, is a sociopath.  His emotions aren’t the same as normal people’s emotions.  And so his story doesn’t have subtle depth, doesn’t have inner growth, none of those things that can cause Anurag to struggle.  Instead it has a cast of dozens, massive action set pieces, brutal life philosophies, etc. etc.  Exactly Anurag’s strong suit.

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And then there’s Vikramaditya Motwane.  He is all about the internal journeys.  He needs a different kind of actor, one that can convey an inner shift rather than an outer.  And he needs a different kind of story, one about small everyday moments between characters and incremental changes, not massive decades long shifts.  And very few moments of violence or action (as I learned from Bhavesh Joshi, it’s not necessarily his strong suit).  And he gets the cast, Saif Ali Khan and Radhike Apte, and the story, a cop slowly investigating, trying to prove himself, and dealing with his father issues, that match his talents.

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The switch between two stories, and two directors, is a brilliant structural decision.  Just as the audience begins to tire of the pace, problems, characters, and filming style of one story, suddenly we are thrown into the other one.  It even makes them slightly easier to follow, in the time we have “off” from one story, we are able to process it and retain only the main points, coming back to the story refreshed instead of dragged down by ultimately pointless details.

What I am most impressed by is that the series actually manages what most crime miniserieses try for and fail, it gives an honest complicated look at the city where it takes place.  It doesn’t just name check The Emergency and Ayodha, it digs into them, shows how they effected the fabric of the city and the characters.  There is a careful power balance of the national government, the local politicians, the police, and the criminals.  And none of them are fully bad or fully good.  The politicians are misguided, the national government is trying its best, the police are corrupt but only up to a certain point, and the criminals are just trying to survive the best way they can.  All of this without falling in love with the setting, without the lingering glamour shots of the city or constant refrains of “it’s Bombay, it’s like that here” which kill so many of these shows by making them obvious.  This isn’t the greatest city in the world, or the worst.  Or the most beautiful, or the ugliest.  It is simply the place where these characters happen to live.  We see it like they see it, in their homes and their offices and the places they drive through and walk past and eat lunch.  Maybe it’s because much of the show was filmed on sets, not on location, they were forced to think small, to think about where these characters would actually live and work instead of trying to think of the usual impressive filming locations out in the real world.

Image result for sacred games netflix set

And of course the cast is wonderful.  Nawazuddin is his usual fascinating complicated self.  Although the character relies a little more on physical ticks than internal moments for my taste.  Saif is solid.  That’s what his character is supposed to be, slow and solid.  Not sensitive, not complicated, not brilliant, but steady and trying his best and moving along in the world.  Saif is perfect, with the maturity and gravitas needed to play someone who is old enough to be looking for a second chance, not a first.  And he manages the needs of his characters, being silently conflicted, trying his best, talking to his mother and his friends and his boss and his suspects, all in a slightly different way.  He doesn’t show off the real Saif fireworks, nothing at the level of his Omkara performance, or even Dil Chahta Hai or Kal Ho Na Ho.  But this is just the first series of 4, they haven’t really tested him yet.  His character is still growing into being a hero.

Oh right, that’s the most important thing to know about the series.  It’s going to be in 4 parts.  So this whole series of episodes is just a set up.  The plot conflicts, and the majority of the characters from these episodes, are finished.  We will move on to the next section with Saif, and possibly Nawazuddin, and not necessarily anyone else.  Or the characters who do continue may be ones who only had a few lines of dialogue in this section, for instance the amazing Anupriya Goenka (from Tiger Zinda Hai and Padmavat) only has one line of dialogue and is never seen onscreen.  Surely they wouldn’t have cast an actress of her talents if they didn’t have bigger plans for her.

Image result for anupriya goenka

 

This is the first major Indian made Netflix miniseries and it is getting a lot of buzz for that, but I find it much more exciting for the way it upends the miniseries structure.  Bringing in two different directors and two different casts-inspired!  Planning out one massive novel in a 4 series commitment from the start-groundbreaking!  And slowly easing us towards a challenging political statement.  It’s barely hinted at here, but I can start to feel the shape of the plot, and it is one that makes the BJP and the RSS and the Shiv Sena look pretty bad.

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35 thoughts on “Sacred Games Season 1 Review (No Spoilers): Terrible Subtitles, Good Ideas

  1. `
    Binge watching on a beautiful summer weekend? Thank goodness you have Dog Hazel to get you outside at least three times a day.

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    • And today I have to do laundry! So that will get me out again.

      On Sun, Jul 8, 2018 at 8:43 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. It definitely looks promising.Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane have always collaborated. One writing the script while the other directed.An easy and not altogether correct way is Anurag’s stuff tends to be sleazy or lowerclass while Vikramaditya’s characters tend to be educated and upperclass.But the emotions and problems remain the same reinforcing the idea that people are much the same everywhere.I really hate the way the subtitles do away with anything specific to India.In Fanney Khan they removed Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi.Those are icons and supposed to be sacrosanct. And the audience has sufficient intelligence to know that they are talking about someone famous.Don’t underestimate them.

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    • I tried to change the subtitles from regular English to English for hearing impaired, hoping that would help, but it didn’t seem to make a difference. There also appears to be a dubbed option, which is horrible, but maybe worth trying if it keeps the references in place instead of strangely erasing them.

      On Sun, Jul 8, 2018 at 9:44 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I noticed that the default on my Netflix is to the English subtitles and I had to change each episode as I started it over to English (CC)…maybe that will help?

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      • I think it’s because this is the starting point. Indian english literature used to be like this too. Naipaul wrote books explaining India and its references to foreigners. Salman Rushdie changed that actually. He was one of the first to simply use Rekha’s name as a reference without explaining who she was. He expected the reader to figure it out. That made him refreshing.

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  3. I’m on the fourth episode right now. It’s pretty great so far though the opening scene did make me nauseous even though I usually can deal with violence on screen. I noticed too that I didn’t like the plain English subtitles but when I switched to English (CC) they got better.

    Nawazuddin’s character is basically everything he’s ever done, especially GOW. Siddiqui is not a Bollywood actor, he’s always been a world cinema kind of guy. On the other hand, Saif’s role is really nothing like he’s ever done and he’s really nailing it. I was looking for the Omkara Saif and I do think it’s there in this character, he does internalized rage and frustration pretty well. The opening scenes where he is being forced to testify wrongly and the look of rage he sends his superior officer is pretty awesome. Still early in the episodes so I’m not sure I like Radhika yet in this role. Her deadpan, flat delivery of dialogue is something I’ve noticed that she does and I’m not sure it’s working in this yet.

    I’m glad there will be more series but judging from interviews, Saif will now be bearded and bulky for the foreseeable future, which I guess I can deal with as long as he is getting great reviews. I know that Siddiqui will be the breakout star of this one if it really does become a Netflix “hit” but I kind of hope Saif gets his share of rave reviews.

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    • There is a really bad moment of violence in episode 7, but it is over quickly.

      I found Nawazuddin harder to watch in this, since there was that little burst of yucky relationship stories about him last year. Nothing really bad, just kind of gross, bragging to friends about having sex and stuff like that. On the other hand, it does sort of strengthen his character here since the backstory matches so well. Makes him harder to watch, but it was supposed to be unpleasant already.

      Radhika I came to like, although she does have some familiar stuff. Her habit of itching her nose or doing similar natural movements while performing began to be a bit obvious for me. But her dialogue delivery I ultimately found refreshing, especially in comparison to all the other emotional female characters.

      I was wondering about Saif filming this! Saif and Anurag and Nawazuddin, can they really devote however many years it will be to just this one series? That’s a big deal, especially for Saif since it limits his film roles based on his appearance.

      On Sun, Jul 8, 2018 at 9:55 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. Just saw the Hema Malini reference and my subtitles used her name! I know what you mean about Nawazuddin. I also get the feeling that he’s a little sketchy and the memoir thing did him no favors. I still think he’s weirdly compelling and despite his slight stature and build, I’ve always thought his face especially was so handsome…a strange Cary Grant resemblance (I know I sound crazy!). But seeing him in all these lecherous sociopath or sketchy roles (like Haramkhor too) is kind of sad sometimes. He’s great at them (maybe too good), but also I think casting directors have no imagination and are hardly ever going to give him a chance at being a suave, sexy guy.

    Oh, and I did see the Cuckoo (love that old time Bollywood reference in the name) twist from the beginning. Kubbra Sait is the breakout star from this for sure so far!

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  5. Enjoyed the piece. The picture you have attached here (the one with the actor playing Katekar and Saif) is of a moment that the actor mention in a piece done on the breakout characters of the show. Thought you might like it. https://scroll.in/reel/885232/cuckoo-katekar-and-malcom-introducing-three-stand-out-characters-and-actors-from-sacred-games. Love how this medium is opening up opportunities for so many talented actors and bringing them to the fore. Love how they etched out his part. Same with Cuckoo.

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    • It was really interesting looking at the flimographies for these actors, they all have years of experience, but somehow never got noticed, small parts in movies or TV shows or non-Hindi films. But it isn’t until now that they have had a chance to have a large number of substantive scenes where they can actually get noticed, instead of just a line here and there.

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      • Update – it’s impossible to binge anything except fro-yo during the summer!! Too much sun and warmth, too many activities, night enough nighttime. So easy to binge in the winter by comparison. I put on SG each night around 1130p and by 1140p I’m fast asleep! 😦 and i can’t just watch while doing chores because like Bollywood newbie, crime drama is not my forte, plus tends to have less Hinglish/English, so i have to really pay attn.

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          • Yay, a purpose for my two episodes at a time reviews. Once you manage to crank through ep 1 and 2, you can give your thoughts over there.

            I completely gave up on following the plot, by the way. I recommend just letting that part of it go and focusing on the characters and relationships instead. The whole “this clue lead to that clue lead to that clue” part of it is essentially impossible to follow and doesn’t end up mattering that much. Which is very classic film noir, the plots never made sense, it was always about the characters and the feel of it more than the plot.

            On Tue, Jul 10, 2018 at 3:48 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  6. I won’t watch this because crime dramas are very much not my thing (unless they involve ghost prostitutes wreaking revenge) but I’m fascinated by this because it seems to be following the same trajectory you see in Hollywood where creators can take real risks with Netflix that they can’t take anywhere else.

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    • Oh definitely! Everyone involved in this has been making stuff that is critically acclaimed and a commercial failures. Including Vikram Chandra, I didn’t realize until I was looking it up, but the original novel wasn’t actually that big of a hit. The critics loved it and it won all kinds of awards, but it didn’t sell many copies. Now, with Netflix, they have a chance to get it in front of an audience that will appreciate it.

      On Sun, Jul 8, 2018 at 9:02 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  7. I finally have some time this coming weekend (3-day holiday) and I’m really looking forward to it. I just accidentally clicked on your spoiler review, and screamed out loud at work when I realized what it was. Fortunately did not see any spoilers. I’ll come back next week to read it.

    Just thinking about the subtitles: there have been other critical comments about the subtitles, as you say removing the references. Wasn’t it JHMS in which Lata Mangeshkar becomes Celine Dion, and Emraan Hashmi turns into Hugh Hefner? That was also Netflix. I think that’s really worse than using “a movie star” for Hema Malini–that just erases the Indian-ness of the movie. This may be the price we pay for being able to see Indian movies on Netflix. Probably anyone with an Erosnow subscription already knows who Lata Mangeshkar is, but Netflix has to appeal to everyone.

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    • I don’t watch many non-Indian films, but I don’t feel like French movies, for instance, feel the need to change references in the subtitles. And BBC shows are super popular in America and also super specific, there’s tons of stuff about TV personalities and stuff that I have to figure out from context, they aren’t bleeping over the names and replacing them with American references. There’s an odd sort of disrespect to it, dismissal, that the audience shouldn’t possibly be expected to know these references, or to learn them if they don’t know them, the original culture should just be erased and replaced with something superior. And I notice this in subtitles on Netflix, and in theaters, the assumption is that the people reading the English subtitles will want only Western references, the Indianness needs to go away, be “translated” into something else.

      Anyway, don’t worry about spoilers! It’s an insanely dense show, so unless you really focus, you won’t be able to grasp anything from the SPOILER review, a casual glance isn’t going to be enough to be truly spoiled. And I can’t wait for you to watch it and join the discussion!

      On Mon, Jul 9, 2018 at 11:22 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Yeah , that’s exactly how I feel about the translations. It’s disrespectful to the movie and the audience. 

        I’ll be back to comment, but I’m not a ginger so it may take me weeks to get through it all.

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    • To your point, I think ADHM converted Katrina Kaif to JLo in its subtitles, as that was in theaters, can’t blame Netflix there.

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      • And to the point of it being a matter of timing, I don’t remember seeing this in the older films. I could be wrong, but it feels like when English subtitles first became common in the early 2000s, the assumption was the movies were being watched by ABCDs or other desis who might be stronger in English than Hindi. There were plenty of funny grammar errors and typos, but ultimately they gave a more literal translation of what was said. It feels like only in the past 5 years or so there has been this effort to make everything super Westernized, which often ends up losing the meaning.

        On Wed, Jul 11, 2018 at 4:40 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • I was staring at that so long trying to make sense of it! I just assumed it was some cool modern terminology I didn’t know about.

      On Tue, Jul 10, 2018 at 6:53 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  8. I forced myself to watch the first two episodes and why did it feel like I was watching Speed or any of the other cop v villian and race against time one man will save the city story that’s been done to death?! Or maybe I put it on when I was too tired from work to really focus on it?!

    At any rate, so far it feels more like an HBO show than a Netflix show. Especially the flashbacks. If you know how the police system works in India, the single cop must do this alone plot feels really concocted. You just can’t do that. Post 26/11, every suspected terror attack would be overseen by the NSG. Local cop won’t even make it past first report of the crime. That premise itself just pulled me out of the show. It felt very Bollywood looking at India which is nothing new. The realism of Nawaz’s gangsta roles so far have been bastardized into a Hollywood style narrative set in Mumbai.

    It’s a loooooong swing to get my disbelief to suspend that far but I’m hoping to overcome my aversion and watch this show like I’d watch a film and tell myself this is an extended stylish Mumbai gangsta film and not 24 remade with a new cast.

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    • I was wondering about the time shift. It’s based on a book written in 2006, and they moved it forward to today. Which is seemingly a small change, except it moves a 2006 story forward to a post-26/11 world and there’s just all these little things that aren’t quite right.

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      • Which is on the same level as “shady, nervous arab guy successfully boards a plane with suspicious looking bag heading to New York and transit workers and plane crew flash him big smiles and nobody sees the plane hijack coming” story. I would not watch that show. Or film.

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      • Which is on the same level as “shady, nervous arab guy successfully boards a plane with suspicious looking bag heading to New York and transit workers and plane crew flash him big smiles and nobody sees the plane hijack coming” story. I would not watch that show. Or film.

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